What’s in a Name?

By Steven Ramey

Discussing the enforcement of shariah in Aceh, Indonesia, a student (at my home institution, the University of Alabama) asked how police would know if the rule-breaker was Muslim, since some claimed the law only applied to Muslims. My impromptu explanation that the officer probably relied on the alleged offender’s name generated puzzled looks. (Later research suggests that identification cards in parts of Indonesia designate the holder’s religion.) In response to their confused looks, I turned to South Asia, where surnames can signify a person’s ethnicity, social status, and religious heritage. Most Patels, for example, have an upper caste Gujarati heritage and claim a Hindu ancestry, while a Varghese typically is an upper caste Christian from Kerala.

Only later did I ponder the assumptions behind my students’ surprise. While many students identify with the religion of their parents and grandparents, they assume that religious identification is about individual choice and assent to particular propositions, not one’s heritage. Religious identification in India, however, has traditionally operated based on one’s familial heritage. The way one’s family conducts life cycle rituals can be more important for self-identification than individual beliefs or other practices.

For example, in my first trip to India, the owner of the guest house where I stayed graciously allowed me to observe her evening rituals, surrounded by images of different deities. She also regularly visited a Hanuman temple and an Arya Samaj temple, among others. Although the Arya Samaj tenets rejected traditional temples and devotion before images of deities, she still identified as an Arya Samaji because she and her family conducted their weddings and funerals according to Arya Samaj rites.

So, I should add the question of names as another way to illustrate the cultural assumptions about religion and identity that we often hold.

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